At the start of 2020, the DPA project outlined a roadmap for how we wanted the year to look -- which collections to prioritize for inventorying and digitization, training team members for new skills, and how we wanted to share our work with the National Geographic staff, as well as the general public. The team had applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to conserve and digitize our Early Color Photography Collection, consisting of over 15,000 glass plate photographs in 2019, so we were hopeful that this collection would come to the fore. In March, as the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic became more apparent, we were forced to begin working from home, unable to work with any of our physical collections that had not already been digitized. Though we missed being in the office, in May we received the wonderful news that we won the grant and would have the opportunity to dive into work on this collection. When we were allowed to return to the office on a limited basis in June (two days a week per person, with only one person in a work area at any given time), we at least knew that most of our time in the office would be spent working with our historic Early Color Photography Collection.
Our Early Color Photography collection comprises much of the National Geographic Society’s earliest color photography. With approximately 13,000 glass plate autochromes and other early photographic processes, it is, to our knowledge, one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. Along with Agfacolor, Dufaycolor, and Finlaycolor processes, the Autochrome Lumiere process was one of a number of additive color processes used to produce color photographs during the first half of the twentieth century. Invented in 1903 by the Lumiere brothers, and commercially marketed after 1907, the Autochrome Lumiere process used microscopic potato starch grains (dyed red, green, and blue) to filter light onto a silver halide emulsion layer. After a positive transparency was created, light could be shone through the autochrome plate, enabling viewership of the image.
The era of autochromes and other early color processes lasted until the 1930s and early 1940s. Autochromes used fragile glass plates and sensitive chemicals that could not compete as commercially viable against the newer Kodachrome and Ektachrome processes, both of which proved easier for photographers to work with in the field. Given these concerns for the long-term preservation of the glass plates, our team deemed it necessary to start the process of repairing damaged plates and entering metadata into an inventory in advance of creating digital surrogates of the historic photographs. With each team member initially taking one bay of the photo archive’s autochrome aisle (each bay consisting of about 50 boxes of ~20 plates each), we set about tackling our task.
First, we’ve examined each plate for damage such as cracks, loose or missing tape that might be exposing the emulsion layer, and degradation of the image. The condition of each plate is noted in the inventory spreadsheet, and any that are deemed to have preservation concerns are set aside to be examined by a conservator. The plates are stored inside paper envelopes that feature valuable information showing the photographer, collection, the month and year the plate was received by National Geographic, and captions of varying levels of detail. As we are carrying out this work in the somewhat chilly confines of our climate-controlled photo archive, we have generally found it optimal to capture this information on our phones, entering the metadata into the spreadsheet while working from home.
At the same time our work on the inventory was taking place, Digital Preservation Archive Manager Julie McVey and Senior Photo Archivist Sara Manco took the lead on our conservation efforts, which were made possible by funding received from our NEG grant. After completing in-person training with Barb Lemmen, Senior Photograph Conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), Julie and Sara examined all the plates we had flagged as damaged during the course of the inventory. The most common issues we found with the plates included: loose or missing tape around the edges of the plate; cracks or scratches on the glass plates; and color loss or shifting on the emulsion level. Some of this damage is irreversible and can only be mitigated by storing the plates in climate-controlled conditions until they undergo digitization. Plates with cracks and scratches that endanger the long-term health of the plates are prepared to be shipped out for conservation work, while Julie and Sara trained with Barb in order to properly repair plates that have loose or missing tape, carrying out this work in-house.
Unfortunately the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases has led our senior leadership team to disallow access to NGS headquarters, except for essential employees, until at least January, so further work on the NEH grant will mostly have to wait until we can return. Health of course takes precedence at this time! We hope that whenever in 2021 we are allowed to return, we can get back to working on the autochrome collection, and eventually digitize these historic images and make them available to our users.
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: http://www.neh.gov.